Key players missing as Somali talks open: Go-it-alone warnings as clan chiefs shun peace conference

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED Nations-sponsored peace conference on Somalia opened in Addis Ababa yesterday with less than zero prospects of producing a political settlement. The conference is chaired by Jan Eliasson who resigned his job at the UN on Saturday, and Somalia's two main protagonists, General Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohammed, did not turn up.

Opening the conference, the Ethiopian President, Meles Zenawi, stressed the urgency of finding a lasting peace settlement and warned that the rest of the world might walk away from Somalia if there was no agreement. He said: 'My reading of the message the international community has been trying to convey to you over the past weeks is this: We are prepared to help you if you get yourselves out of the quagmire you are in. If you insist on wallowing in the quagmire, we have no qualms about turning our backs on you.'

Mr Meles warned: 'You should therefore have no illusions about international assistance . . . You will all go under, taking Somalia with you down the drain.'

It was not a case of the message falling on deaf ears; the important ears were not there. General Aideed, who with his allies controls most of the capital, Mogadishu, and much of southern and central Somalia, refused to attend. He replied to the conference invitation with a demand that the UN should pull out of Somalia and that aid distribution should be handed over to an 'independent and neutral' power. He said the UN had 'failed in its mission' to Somalia.

The general said at a press conference in Mogadishu that he would not attend the peace conference and announced an alternative conference to be held in Mogadishu in January. He said he would not attend the Addis conference because the UN was still holding some of his senior aides, including Osman Atto, the paymaster of his movement, the Somalia National Alliance.

A delegation from the SNA is in Addis Ababa, but stayed away from the opening of the conference. General Aideed said he had told his 25-strong mission to contact the other Somali factions at the conference, explain the SNA's position and invite them to the conference in January.

Ali Mahdi, who leads an alliance of 12 organisations, is also staying away, but has not said why. It is understood that he is protesting at the failure of the UN to honour its commitment to disarm all factions in Somalia. Mr Ali Mahdi has urged the UN to conduct disarmament of all factions, if necessary by force. He claims to have disarmed his own militia but, as he said in a recent interview with the Independent, 'the problem is General Aideed'. Despite his claim to have disarmed, he has said that he is ready to resist General Aideed by force again.

General Aideed's virtual defeat of Unites States forces on the night of 3 October, when 18 US troops were killed, one captured and nearly 80 wounded, has virtually ensured that the UN will be forced to leave Somalia at the end of March when the US has said it will pull out. Whether he will be able to extend his area of influence by force of arms or by negotiation with other faction leaders is unclear, but General Aideed will certainly be able to fill the power vacuum created by the US withdrawal.

In July, when members of his militia killed 24 Pakistani UN troops, Genberal Aideed was declared a 'wanted man' by the UN. But, despite 24- hour surveillance of his territory, the UN forces were unable to capture or kill him.

Having failed to defeat him by military means, the only hope of an internationally agreed political settlement before the US withdraws is the Addis peace conference. But the selection of Jan Eliasson, the Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, has weakened its authority. Even before his resignation last week it was known that Mr Eliasson did not enjoy the full support of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in his attempts to co-ordinate the UN agencies in the field.

It seems, therefore, that the only man who can salvage something from the conference is Meles Zenawi, who also rescued the last Somalia conference in Addis in March when UN officials squabbled over who should chair it. Then the factions signed an agreement to disarm, but it was never implemented.